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About billnieporte

billnieporte has been a member since June 8th 2009, and has created 771 posts from scratch.

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This Author's Website is http://www.pattersonavenuebaptist.com

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Good Friday – The End of the Road

The End of the Road – John 18:1-19:42

 

So, here we are, at “the end of road.”

Our Lenten journey began on Ash Wednesday. On that day many of you knelt before a parish minister who placed the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes, saying:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The forty days that followed have been a spiritual journey called Lent; a time set aside for private devotion and public worship, focused on prayer, penance, and self-denial.

Our society has tried to help on our journey. Sam’s Club discounted their Cinnamon Pretzel combo; declaring it in their promotion as: “Perfect for Lent.”   We’ve got one more day to take advantage of that deal.  Let’s car pool!

The whole self denial thing can be hard to wrap our minds around.  My friend Steve Teague was something of a troublemaker when he was young.  He was kicked out of the public schools and ended up in a strict Roman Catholic parochial school.  On Ash Wednesday, a Nun gathered the students to discuss what they were “giving up” for Lent.  Each student reported their particular fast.

“I am giving up ice cream.”

“I am giving up chocolate.”

“I am giving up soda.”

When they came to Steve, he stood and reported: “Ma’am, we’re Baptists; we don’t give up nothin for nobody!”

Today’s gathering brings us near the end of our Lenten journey.  It also reminds us that we are near “the end of the road” for Jesus.  We cannot help but feel that way when we hear the lashing of the whip across his back; when we see the nails driven into his hands and feet; and as we imagine the spear being plunged into his side.

It was “the end of the road.”

Some might bristle at the thought.  Some might be tempted to corner me after the service and challenge what I am saying.  But I will stick to the statement.  Good Friday was “the end of the road” for Jesus.

Let’s remember how it all began.  Let’s focus just on the words from the Fourth Gospel.

The author writes of the Jesus, saying:

“In the beginning was the WORD, and the WORD was with God, and the WORD was God.”

“As many as received him, to them he gave the power to become sons and daughters of God.”

“The WORD became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from Abba, full of grace and truth.” 

“If you have seen me, you have seen Abba.  Abba and I are one.” 

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

These words focus of Jesus’ mission and ministry.

Next the Fourth Gospel illustrates Christ’s work with some pretty incredible narratives.  We read about…

…the Miracle as Cana;

…the Cleansing of the Temple;

…the Story about Nicodemus and New Birth;

…Jesus Crossing Borders to Bless Samaritans.

 

As we continue, we read about…

 

… the Healing Miracles;

…the feeding of the Thousands;

…the Teaching and Preaching of Jesus;

…the Offering of Grace and Mercy to Sinners;

…Jesus Identification as the Good Shepherd.

 

I could go on, but you get the point.  On every level and at every turn there is hope, potential, and promise.  We read expecting that something stupendous, astonishing, and fantastic is about to happen.

Then we turn the page to the reading for today and it’s not at all what we expect.

Judas, One on the Twelve, Betrays Jesus

The Roman Cohort Takes Jesus into Custody

Jesus Is Interrogated By Top Religious Officials

His Friend Peter Rejects Even Knowing Him

Jesus Taken Before Pilate

Before Pilate He Is Beaten and Abused

 

We can’t help but bow our head in sorrow, feeling that this is truly “the end of the road.”

We all understand what it feels like to come to “the end of the road.” Much of this life is filled with failure and futility.

I remember visiting a man in my last church shortly after his wife had died.  She’d had along, drawn out battle with cancer.  He met me at the door and said, “Pastor, please do not tell me how she is no longer suffering.  Do not tell me she is in a better place. Today all I know is that she is gone and I will never see her again.”

That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”

A couple years ago, one of the young children in my congregation had a conversation with my daughter, who was then a student in college.  He asked her if I (her father, the pastor) was the owner of our church.

 

Michelle responded, saying: “No, the church belongs to God.  My dad is the preacher at the church.”

 

The young boy responded, “What does a preacher do?  Does he KILL people?”

 

That’s not really that odd of a question.  Our congregation has dealt with the death of nearly 75% of its membership in the last several years.  Death has been an ongoing topic of conversation in our congregation.

 

That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”

There is something in your life, isn’t there?  There is some area of grief.  There is some feeling of loss.  There is some arena of suffering and struggle.  There is something that robs you of your hope and leaves you with a feeling of despair.

 

That’s what it feels like at “the end of the road.”

 

But we are not talking about you or me, are we?  We are talking about Jesus.  For each of us, grief comes and goes.  People and institutions live and die.  We don’t like that, but we understand it.  But it is Jesus we are talking about.  It seems so out of place to talk about Jesus reaching “the end of the road.”

 

So, we try to rationalize it and make excuses for it.  We pretend it is not really what it is.  We come to this day, to “the end of the road,” and we try to interpret this day in the light of the coming Sunday.  But it does not do the trick.  The cross is real.  The agony we remember on this day is real.  This death is real.  We cannot escape its reality.  We cannot jump from the Palms to the empty tomb.  On this day we must declare as true the reality that Jesus the Christ came to “the end of the road.”

Let that sink in. 

No amount of pretend can make it any less than what it is.  No pabulum of pious rhetoric can make the tragedy of this day any less tragic.  Every step along this Lenten journey has led us further down a path that end abruptly at cross.

With that in mind, we wonder how any of us could call this day GOOD.  On this darkest of days, while facing the harsh and ruthless reality of the cross, what can we say to understand this day as GOOD?

Maybe we can say that God understands and even experiences with us the darkest moments of our human experience.  Maybe we can pause and simply appreciate the fact that God does not remove God’s self from the reality of human brokenness, pain, suffering and sorrow.

God is Emmanuel through it all.  God is with us and One with us. 

When my son Michael was about seven years old, we had a conversation after attending a funeral for a seven year old boy and his father, both killed in a car crash by a drunk driver.

 

“Daddy, are we going to die, too?” Michael asked.

 

How do you answer a question like that from a seven year boy old without scaring the hell out of him?

 

Of course, the answer is yes.  My son is going to die.  I am going to die.  If it is not a car crash that takes him – it will be cancer, or heart attack, or earthquake, or tsunami, or crime, or war, or maybe, if he is lucky, extreme old age.

 

My son is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He’s a student in the engineering school.  Just a few days ago at VCU a young man  my son’s age, and also a student in the engineering school, was shoot dead near campus.

 

Here’s the thing:  WE ARE ALL DYING.  From the moment of our conception, we begin a journey toward “the end of the road.”  We are all dying.

 

But here is the GOOD news.  God does not desert us, even when we arrive at “the end of the road.”  God is with us.  God weeps with us in abiding love.  God knows first-hand what it means to suffer and bleed.  God knows what it means to come to “the end of the road.”

What makes this Friday GOOD?  It is also the discovery that the human evil expressed at the cross is NOT more powerful than God’s ability to love us.  Here is what we know:  Human sin did its worst on Good Friday.  It poured out its venom and violence in the most horrific fashion.  But the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ responded to that venom and violence with grace, mercy, and love.

 

This Friday is GOOD because it remind us that the LOVE of God is greater than all the evil that humanity could muster. 

 

That means that whenever we face the reality of evil; or engage in the passionate struggle for justice;  or take on the task of promoting righteousness in this broken world, or even simply dealing with the reality of our mortality; we can know that GOD is with us.

 

In his book The Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes about how he moved from believing things about God to believing in God. He wrote:

 

“The agonizing moments through which I have passed during the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before, I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of lonely days, and dreary nights, I have heard an inner voice saying, `Lo, I will be with you.’ When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness humanity has cosmic companionship.”

 

That’s the GOOD News of GOOD Friday.  God is with us when things are hard.  God is with us when things are at their worst.  God is with us in those moments of despair when we face the reality of the cross.  God is with us at “the end of the road” and God loves us through it all.

 

That might be all we can say on a day like today; but praise be to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, this message is enough.    

 

 

 

 

 

Strength to Love
by: Martin Luther King Jr
publisher: Fortress Press, published: 2010-01-10
ASIN: 0800697405
EAN: 9780800697402
sales rank: 18381
price: $6.50 (new), $7.88 (used)

“If there is one book Martin Luther King, Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love.”

So wrote Coretta Scott King. She continued: “I believe it is because this book best explains the central element of Martin Luther King, Jr.’ s philosophy of nonviolence: His belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life. That insight, luminously conveyed in this classic text, here presented in a new and attractive edition, hints at the personal transformation at the root of social justice: ” By reaching into and beyond ourselves and tapping the transcendent moral ethic of love, we shall overcome these evils.”

In these short meditative and sermonic pieces, some of them composed in jails and all of them crafted during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights struggle, Dr. King articulated and espoused in a deeply personal compelling way his commitment to justice and to the intellectual, moral, and spiritual conversion that makes his work as much a blueprint today for Christian discipleship as it was then.

Individual readers, as well as church groups and students will find in this work a challenging yet energizing vision of God and redemptive love.

Holy Wednesday, Debates and Discourse About the Temple

Holy Wednesday

Debates and Discourse About the Temple (Matthew 24-25)

While a student in seminary I worked for about nine months as the youth minister of a church in down-town Louisville, Kentucky.  At one time the church had been very large.  It had known a very active ministry.  Times had been changing, however, and the community around the church was in a period of transition.  No longer did its members live near the church.  Most of them drove to worship each Sunday from the suburbs.   When I was brought on as a staff member it was for the expressed purpose of building a ministry for the teenagers who lived in the community that surrounded the church’s meeting hall.

Now the youth in that community were, you might say, a little rough around the edges.  Few had much adult supervision.  Many used drugs and alcohol on a regular basis.  Almost all had had at least one altercation with the law.  It was a tough place to do ministry—but that’s where the Lord had planted me so I got to work and did the best I could.

Now the church had several beautiful buildings, including a recreation hall that contained an indoor basketball court.  After about six months, I approached the pastor about the possibility of conducting an all-night youth lock-in at the church.  Now for those of you who don’t know what a youth lock-in is all about, it is an event in which youth are locked into a facility all night to eat junk food, play games, and watch movies.  There is no sleeping.  Looking back at my days in youth ministry I now perceive a youth lock to be a lot like purgatory for non-Catholics.

Several friends from the seminary had agreed to help supervise the lock-in. I explained to the pastor that this event would be a way of keeping these kids off the street, in a safe environment (for at least one night), where they would have an opportunity to hear the gospel.  The agreed that it was a good idea and took the idea to the church council.  “Why should we sponsor something like this for those kids,” one of the council members said.  “After all, those kids are nothing but trouble-makers.”  Despite the opposition, however, the council granted permission for the lock-in.  “After all,” the pastor had said, “we are a church.  What are we here for, anyway?”

Almost forty teenagers attended the lock-in.  We played basketball, watch movies, ate pizza, made banana splits, conducted bible studies, and preach the gospel to these so-called “trouble-makers” from the streets.  It was a great night.  I remember fourteen year Timmy who committed himself to Christ that evening.

The lock-in ended at 7:00AM.  After the last teenager had left, I went to my apartment to get some much needed sleep.  About three hours later I got a call from one of the church council members asking me to come down to the recreation building.  It seems the rest rooms were a mess, somebody had carve some profanity on the wall, and one of the doors to a Sunday School classroom had been broken. The repairs would cost several hundred dollars.

“You’re just a young man,” the board member said.  “You don’t realize the sacred trust we have been given to protect this building.  We can’t let these hooligans come in here and trash the place.”  I tried to tell him about the positive things that had happened.  I told him how many of these kids had heard clear presentation of gospel, perhaps for the first time in their lives.  I told him about Timmy, the young man who had committed himself to Christ.  I explained to him that the expense was worth the investment.  I volunteered to pay for the damages out of my own pocket.  “That’s not the point,” he said.  “The point is this:  we don’t want kids like these coming to our church!”

“I only remained on staff a few months longer.  The church decided it didn’t really want a ministry for youth in that community.  I accepted an invitation to pastor a small church in rural Indiana.  The last contact I had with anyone from that church was about two years ago.  Their attendance at morning worship had dwindled to about twenty (they had about 125 when I was on staff).  They were contemplating shutting their doors and selling the property to a new congregation in that community that was growing like wild-fire.

Today is Holy Wednesday.  This is mid-course through Holy Week, and Jesus spends it in discourse and debate with the temple elite.  These teaching in Matthew are found in chapters 24-25.  During these exchanges, Jesus said:  “To those who have, more shall be given.  To those have not, even what they have shall be taken away!”

Jesus is warning about judgment.  The master held his servants accountable for the way they had served as stewards of His money. This is a story of judgment.  God will likewise hold you and I accountable for our stewardship of His possessions.  Make no mistake about it.  There will be judgment.  But this all prompts me to ask the question:  “Where us the grace in this story?”

In his commentary on this parable, William Willimon wishes that Jesus had put a fourth servant in this story.  He’d like to hear about a servant who took the masters money, went out and invested it, only to see his portfolio go belly-up and all the money be lost.

“Well, master, its like this:  The financial advisor down at Smith Barney said that this was a sure thing investment.  He said there’d be no risk and great reward.  It sounded so good that I invested all of you money in his savings-and-loan company.  The company went bankrupt.  I lost everything.  I lost all your money.  I’m truly sorry!”

What would the master in Jesus’ parable have said if he had received a report like that?  We can’t know for sure, but I strongly suspect that he would have offered forgiveness.  After all, the entire ministry of Jesus was about lifting up the broken, having compassion on the downtrodden, and giving a second chance to those who had tried and failed at life.

He said to the women caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more!”

He said to Zaccheaus, “I know who you are and I still want to have dinner in your house!”

He said to the sinful woman who anointed and washed his feet, “You faith has saved you!”

And then He tells the story about a young man who takes his portion of His father’s inheritance and runs away to a distant land where he spends the money in reckless living.  When the boy returns home, do you know how the received him?  He was welcomed with open and loving arms!

This Jesus is always forgiving, always lifting up, and always giving second chances!

It would have been nice if there had been a fourth servant in this story, but there’s not.  We can’t put one in!  We can only imagine.  So the question remains:  “Where the grace?”

The truth is that the grace can be seen right from the start—in the very first line of the story.  Can you see it?  Jesus said, “A man went on a journey, but before he left he call his servants together and entrusted his property to them.”  The master entrusted his property into the stewardship of his servants.  He gave them his riches.  He put millions of dollars in their hands.  He lavishly divided his possessions and property among them.  He gave them everything.

Think about that for a moment.  The master gave everything he had to these three servants.  Do you know what this means?  It means that when the master returned, everything he was would be dependent on what they had done with what he had given them.  Consider the implications! It is not the servants, but the master who is at risk.  The master is the one who has entrusted his whole life—all that he was and had—into the hands of the servants. The master invested himself in his servants.  He gave them everything. Everything!  Now that’s grace—that’s extravagant grace.

Usually, whenever we think about stewardship, we think in terms of what the church and it members should invest in the ministry of the Kingdom.  When we read this parable, however, it seems to me that stewardship should take on an entirely different light.  It is not we who invest in the Kingdom, it is God who invests His Kingdom in us.  God has entrusted into our care the keys of the Kingdom.  God has invested the riches of His realm into our hands. God wants to see what we will do with what He has given us!

God doesn’t want the Kingdom to just sit there—safe and secure behind the walls of the sanctuary.  God wants the Kingdom to be taken out into the world and shared with all who will receive it.  Better to spend it all and end up with nothing than to bury it in the ground and end up doing nothing.

The third servant didn’t get it, did he?  I fear sometimes that I don’t get it either.  I understand the level of risk, but I sometimes fail to see the extravagance of the gift.  When we see only the risk, and never the grace, the only thing left to do is bury our talent in the ground with fear and trembling.  There is no possibility, no potential, no defeat, no risk, no joy, no sorrow.  All we’ve got is a bunch of money in a whole in the back yard.

The third servant returned the briefcase of cash to his master and said:  “Here is your money, safe and sound!”  Guess what?  The master never wanted in back!  Do you see what he did with servants one and two.  He left the money in their care—and he gives them even more!  All he expects is that his servants will use what he has given them.  The master was looking for a few wheelers-and-dealers.

The first two servants understood.  Oh yes, they realized that there was a risk.  They also realized that there was grace—extravagant grace.  And so they did what they could with what they had been given.  That’s why they heard the master say, “Well done my good and faithful servants.  You have been faithful over little, I will put you in charge of much.  Enter into my joy!”

When the master does business, he wheels and deal.  This story suggests that God is out in the world right now, looking for some partners with whom he can wheel and deal.

 

 

The God Revealed in Jesus Christ: An Introduction to Trinitarian Theology
by: Grace Communion International
publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, published: 2014-10-17
ASIN: 1502887207
EAN: 9781502887207
sales rank: 1664722
price: $6.02 (new), $30.49 (used)

In this collection of articles, we present an outline of Trinitarian theology. It begins with Jesus Christ. As God in the flesh, he reveals to us what God is; he teaches us that the Father is in character just like Jesus. Other doctrines flow from that point. Jesus reveals that there was, even before time began, love between the Father and the Son. There are relationships within God, yet there is only one God. Humanity was made in the image of God, and we are made for the purpose of having eternal relationships, based on God’s love, with him and with one another. Yet we fall short of this divine purpose; we are unable to qualify ourselves for the kingdom of God. This brings us back to Jesus, the incarnate God. As our Creator, he could represent us all, and so he became human as our representative and substitute, to atone for the sins of all humanity and to reconcile all humanity to God. He extends unconditional love and grace to us. Humans, however, do not always return that favor, and so there is a growth process toward the goal God has established for us. It is tremendously good news, and the more we learn about the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the more that we desire a relationship with him. We have not earned his love, but he has earned ours. It is all built upon the unity of the Father and of Jesus. And yet the Bible says that there is only one God. How can we have plurality within one Being? The doctrine of the Trinity was formulated to say how Father and Son are one God: two Persons in one God. As we discuss in another book, the Holy Spirit is likewise a Person in the Triune God. God is love, and we are invited to join him for eternity!

A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel
by: Bradley Jersak
publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, published: 2015-04-21
ASIN: 1508528373
EAN: 9781508528371
sales rank: 83506
price: $14.00 (new), $18.57 (used)

What is God like? Toxic images abound: God the punishing judge, the deadbeat dad, the genie in a bottle–false gods that need to be challenged. But what if, instead, God truly is completely Christlike? What if His love is more generous, his Cross more powerful, and his gospel more beautiful than we’ve dared to imagine? What if our clearest image of God is the self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering Love revealed on the Cross? What if we had ‘A More Christlike God’?

Holy Tuesday, What authority?

Holy Tuesday:  By What Authority?

Matthew 21:19-22New International Version (NIV)

19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.(A)

20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked.

21 Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt,(B) not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for(C) in prayer.”

 

Today’s biblical story is a parable about judgment and authority.  Put it in its context.  The religious leaders came to Jesus asking him some questions.  They want to know if he was the real deal.  They want to know if his ministry was genuine or counterfeit.   “By what authority are you doing these things?”  they asked.  “Who gave you the right to do what you are doing?” Jesus responds by telling them a story—a parable about judgment. 

The story goes like this: One day a wealthy land owner purchased a prime piece of property on which he planted a beautiful vineyard.  He took lavish care of this vineyard, building a fence and watchtower to protect it.  Then one day the owner was called out of the country on business and he entrusted his vineyard into the watch-care of some tenants.

A good deal of time went by—and the tenants enjoyed the fruits of the landowner’s vineyard. We must remember, however, that this wasn’t their vineyard!  They hadn’t planned it, planted plant it, purchase it, or improve it.  They had simply enjoyed its benefits.  Finally the time came for the tenants to pay the rent. The vineyard’s owner sends one of his servants to collect what was due!

The tenants were furious.  They had come to think of the vineyard as their property.  They began to think of as owner rather than caretakers.  Resenting the arrival of the land owner’s servant, they shamefully they beat him and send him packing.  A second servant was dispatched to collect the rent.  He received the same despicable treatment.  Finally the owner figures that if he sends his own son they certainly will show proper respect and pay the rent.  The land owner was mistaken.  The tenants not only beat the son, they also kill him. 

Next Jesus asks his accusers a question:  “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenets?”

This is an interesting parable.  It is offered by Jesus in response to a question about his authority.  “By what authority do you do these things?” the religious leaders asked Jesus.  “Who gave you the right to preach?  Who gave you the right to teach?  Who gave you the right to heal and perform miracles?”  What Jesus does by telling this parable is turn their questions around and throw them right back in the face of his accusers.  Its not his authority that should be questioned, but theirs! While the vineyard of Israel belonged to God, the religious elite of Jesus’ day had come to think of themselves as the owners of the vineyard, rather than its tenants.  They had ignore the warnings of God’s servants the prophets.  Now they were rejecting the authority of God own son. 

Two thousand years ago, when Jesus first told this parable, it was heard as a polemic against the religious leaders in the synagogue.  Today—if we are to be honest—it must be read as a challenge to the church.  You see we are now the “tenants” of the vineyard.  The church has been entrusted with the gospel. We did not cultivate this gospel.  We are tenants, not landowners.   This parable must be read as a harsh warning about impending judgment if we fail to remember whose we are and to whom we belong. 

Let’s ask ourselves some difficult questions today.  By whose authority do we do the things we do?  By whose authority do we gather?  By whose authority do we worship? By whose authority do we evangelize? By whose authority do we minister? By whose authority do we send missionaries?  Under what authority are we here this morning as a part of this congregation?

Its really quite sad how little we ask ourselves these types of questions, isn’t it?  I know its true in my own life, as a pastor.  I rarely ask myself these types of questions.  When confronted with some sort of problem in the church my first temptation is to ask myself, “What will the congregation think?”  “What will the folks at the business meeting say?”  “What will the deacons think?”  “What will the church council say?” What I rarely ask myself is this:  “What does God want to see happening in my life?”

It happens for all of us from time to time, doesn’t it?  The time come for us to plan the ministry and outreach of the church and what do we do?  We make plans, develop programs, and instituted ministries.  Then we gather in a worship service to plead for God to bless our work.  We pray after the fact.  We ask God to bless our efforts rather than guide them!

Do you see what I am saying?  Sometimes we are all guilty of acting as if the church was our possession!  We gather together at business meeting and planning sessions to ask, “What do we want to do next?”  We’ve got is all twisted around.  The very first thing we ought to be doing is asking ourselves the questions:  “What does the Lord require?”  “What does God want us to do?”

This is not only true for how we view the church, but also for how we view our own individual lives.  Too often we think of ourselves as masters of our own destiny.  We consider ourselves to be self-made men and women.  Like Frank Sinatra our motto is:  “I did it my way!”  That’s not the way it should be for those of us who are Christians.  When we become Christian we are pledging to do something more than simply believe something about Jesus.  We are pledging to follow Jesus.  We are declaring him to be our Lord.  We are acknowledging ourselves to be God’s vineyard.

Now there is certainly no doubt that this story is a parable of judgment.  At the end of the parable Jesus says that if the tenants forget who owns the land, it will be taken from them and given to others.  But before we delve into this aspect of the parable, however, let us examine if this story might not also contain some good news.  Let us examine if this parable might not also be a story of grace—at least for those who know on whose land they reside.

A couple of months a fellow pastor suggested one of the most freeing lessons I’ve learned about the ministry. She said:  “It’s not our job as pastors to make the church turn out alright, since the church is not our possession.  Our job as a pastor is to be as faithful as we can with what we have!”  That’s not just a good lesson for pastors, that’s a good lesson for all of us who want to be followers of Jesus.  To quote T.S. Eliot, “For there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business.”

For me this is a message of grace.  The pastor can’t keep the church going.  Neither can the deacons, the WMU, the church council, Sunday School teachers, or wealthy and influential contributors.  This is not our church.  This is God’s church.  It is only on loan to us from the one who created it and paid for it with the death of his Son.  This church is gathered today under the authority of God, not through our earnest efforts.  This is good news.  This is the grace.  This is the message that should cause us to take heart.  The church is not all left up to us.  This is God’s church and God’s ministry.  We are God’s people—His possession.  For those of us who understand and act accordingly, this is a parable of tremendous grace.

And yet there is no sidestepping the element of judgment.  You see sometimes we don’t acts accordingly.  Sometimes we act like this is our church rather than God’s. When this happens there is judgment!  The parable ends by Jesus asking, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

This story contains a dire word of warning for the church.  Jesus said that the unfaithful tenants would be punished and that the landowner would “lease the vineyard to other tenants.”

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of a friend, a Methodist seminary professor, who visited a California university town one summer were he was teaching a course.  After he and his family entered the community they passed by a large, impressive Methodist church building.

“We’ll go to that church on Sunday,” the man said to his family.

On Sunday they all got up, got dressed, and walked a few blocks to the church building.  As they neared the structure, they could hear music—loud music—complete with guitars and drums emanating from the neo-gothic building.

“What kind of church is this?” the man’s son asked.

“The sign says that it’s one of ours,” said the man.  “You’ve got to remember that this is California.  They do things a little different out here!”

A smiling usher greeted them at the door.  When the door opened, they could see that the service had already begun.  In the service there was a band in full swing.  People were clapping, smiling, and swaying to the music.  The congregation was made up of all ages and the colors of the rainbow.  When the pastor spoke members of the congregation would shout “Amen!”  “Praise God!”  or “Hallelujah!”

“Is this a Methodist Church?” the man asked the usher.

“Oh, no,” said the usher.  “We just rent the sanctuary from the Methodist Church. Please let me take you to the Methodist Church.”

The usher took the family around the corner of the building to a small chapel were a very small group of mostly older people were gathered plodding through a traditional morning worship service.

On the way back home, as they made their way through a sidewalk that was filled with folks after the larger worship service, the seminary professor looked back at the throng of people from all nations, races,  and ages and then said to his family, “This was the Methodist Church!”

If this church is not responsive to God’s voice—if we don’t remember that we are God’s people and that this is God’s church—then we run the risk that this vineyard might be given “to other tenants who will give God the produce at the harvest time”?

 

Holy Monday, Temple Cleansinng, and Violence

Holy Monday Reflection

Today is often referred to as HOLY MONDAY.  It is the day after Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  It is the Monday before the LAST SUPPER…before Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

This is the day that Jesus cleansed the temple.  Here is how The Gospel of Mark recounts this incident Mark 11:15-19 (ESV):

15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

 

One of the interesting ethical stances of most Christian is an appeal to the way of Jesus, or the imitation of Christ.  People point to the behavior of Jesus, and say something like:  “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD?)

The particular question, (WWJD?) was popularized by Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book, In His Steps, which was subtitled “What Would Jesus Do?”  During the 1990’s, this book experienced a revival of interest, spiking a cottage industry of sorts, around bracelets, t-shirts, hats, and other religious paraphernalia which sports a WWJD logo.

Sheldon, influenced by a brand of progressive Christian socialism, built his novel around a series of sermons he preached to his church in Topeka, Kansas.  The challenge in those sermons and his novel was to as the question:  “What Would Jesus Do” when facing any life decision or ethical challenge, and then live one’s life in response to that question.

For many Christians, the events of Holy Monday in the life of Jesus pose an interesting challenge.  Taken out of their context (and while actually ignoring what the text says happen), this event has been used as an example from within the life of Jesus to support acts of suppose sacred violence for the accomplishment of some greater good.  For example, in Holy Week 2017, people across social media and in many pulpits have referenced this text as supportive of President Donald Trump’s bombing of a Syrian military airport.  59 cruise missiles were deployed in response to the accusation that Syrian President Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.

Several people on one social media thread I followed referred to the story of Jesus cleansing the temple as justification for POTUS Trump bombing Syria.  The question starting the thread was posed in similar fashion to that of Sheldon’s novel, but instead of asking:  “What would Jesus do?” the inquiry was “Who would Jesus kill?”

So, let’s look at what actually happened in the text.

We begin by asking:

When did Jesus defend himself?

When did he advocate killing enemies?

Did Jesus advocate killing anyone?

When did Jesus act in a vengeful fashion?

When are we justified, based on the teaching and example of Jesus, in shooting back when fired upon?

These questions are central because ONLY during the events of Holy Week (where Jesus ultimately lays down his life in response to human violence) is there ANY act that might be argued as violence on Jesus’ past.  That act is when he cleanse the temple.  So, let’s look carefully at what happened and why!

Jesus approached the temple for prayer.  The temple was created, according to the Hebrew scripture, to be a “house of prayer for all people.”  The temple consisted of three chambers.  The inner chamber was for the High Priest to offer sacrifices.  The next chamber out was only for Jewish men to worship.  The outer chamber/court was the place where Gentiles and women could worship (“house of prayer for all people”).

It was in this outer chamber where the money changers sat exchanging  Greek money for Temple coinage which could then be used to purchase sacrificial animals.  So, in the center of the sanctuary for women and Gentiles, a commerce center had been set up.  Not very conducive for a “house of worship for all people,” now is it?

Jesus, seeing the exclusionary behavior on the part of the Temple hierarchy fashioned a whip, drove out the animals, and turned over the tables or the money-changers.

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

Jesus is reacting to the injustice that robbed the Temple of its purpose by denying Gentiles and women their place of worship and prayer.

Obviously, Jesus actions are not those of a Mr. Milquetoast sort of fellow.  But non-violence in response to violence is not weakness.  One of the bravest things a person can do is stand fast to his or her convictions without lashing back when slapped, instead “turning the other cheek” as Jesus instructs. As such, those who reject violence as a response to violence as not lacking in courage.

That said, the question is ultimately not about levels of courage, but whether Jesus’ cleansing of the temple justifies violence.  The inquiry concerns what we are to do with this story – this one single story?

Was Jesus reacting violently to a violent attack on himself?  NO!  And this is confirmed repeatedly throughout his life, and especially during the events of Good Friday.

What Jesus was doing, however, was reacting against injustice perpetrated in the temple in the name of God.

Was Jesus doing physical harm to any single person?  To that the text is unclear.  Driving out animals and turning over tables, however, is certainly NOT the same as “calling fire down from heaven,” which Jesus clearly rejected as a response to Samaritans who failed to welcome his message.  Nor can the whips and overturned tables be considered a justification for bombs and bullets.

What is clear is that this story, when held up to the light of the entirety of Jesus teachings and example, cannot be a justification for vengeance and violence.  Especially when this event comes during the week when Jesus rejects retaliatory violence as he carries a cross to Golgotha.

The weight of the New Testament is clearly on the side of reacting non-violently to the threat or use of violence.  Or, at the very least, the totality of Jesus teachings should lead us to perceive violence as an absolute last resort, to be engaged in using the most minimal of means possible, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction that can be explained as little more than vengeance.

Of course, the “last resort” argument is never really in play, especially for a nation steeped with the backing of the most sophisticated and advance armaments in human history.  Our own nation (the USA) has the ability to (conservatively) destroy all life on planet earth some fifteen times over, something is seriously off kilter.

So, whom might Jesus drive away with a whip, turning over their money tables.  Based on the text, a good argument could be made that he would drive out the entire military industrial complex, which trades money for weapons on a planet created for all humanity to abide.

Consider that single fact:  The USA all by itself has the ability to destroy the entire planet fifteen times over.  Bill Coffin once said, “One time over should be sufficient, but it is always nice to bounce the rubble a bit!”

WWJD?

We are to follow the ways of Jesus.  He did not defend himself.  He did not advocate the killing of enemies.  He died with a prayer of forgiveness on his lips.  He was the epitome of non-retaliation.

When I read the story of the cleansing of the temple in the light of the totality of Jesus’ life and witness, I cannot support vengeance and the death of enemies.    Rather, my heartfelt desire must be to see all enemies redeemed by the sacrificial love, expressed by Jesus and through his Spirit.

Peacemaking Christians: The Future of Just Wars, Pacifism, and Nonviolent Resistance
by: Michael K. Duffey
publisher: Sheed & Ward, published: 1995-11-01
ASIN: 1556127642
EAN: 9781556127649
sales rank: 5550808
price: $7.92 (new), $1.56 (used)

In light of modern warfare and modern Catholic teaching, Duffey examines and assesses three Christian approaches to peace and war. Through extensive ethical analysis of the Gulf War, he examines the role of the churches to avert war, the use of economic sanctions and the aftereffects of the war in the Middle East. Duffey also evaluates the use of military force to overcome the ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Somalia and recent successful resolutions.

Life in the Spirit: A Post-Constantinian and Trinitarian Account of the Christian Life (Pentecostals, Peacemaking, and Social Justice)
by: Andréa D. Snavely
publisher: Pickwick Publications, published: 2015-05-12
ASIN: 1625645139
EAN: 9781625645135
sales rank: 3182172
price: $23.80 (new), $14.30 (used)

What would the church look like if Christians saw their lives as constituted by the Spirit’s presence to live as Jesus lived? In a time when being ”led by the Spirit” is defined more by achieving the ”American Dream” than by Jesus’s life, answering this question rightly seems all the more critical for the church to survive in a culture increasingly hostile to Christianity. Building upon the work of post-Constantinians John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas and upon the Trinitarian Spirit-Christology of Leopoldo Sánchez, this account of the Christian life provides a framework for seeing one’s Christian life as one transformed by the Spirit to live in the resurrection reality of Jesus’s sonship with the Father in the Spirit. In the process, one will discover that, for Jesus, being led by the Spirit meant trusting his Father to the point of death on a cross, trusting God to resurrect him even if he did not save him. Should it mean the same for Christians today? If so, this would require the church to reimagine its ministries for the Spirit to work repentance and faith rather than simple agreement. For Christians living in the Spirit, their lives might look very different.

Passion Sunday: The Disillusionment of Self

This post includes the video and manuscript for the Passion/Palm Sunday worship gathering in 2017 at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.

The Grace of Disillusionment

Matthew 27:27-31 (NIV)

Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him.

 Then they led him away to crucify him.

 

 

Some traditions refer to today as Palm Sunday.

Those traditions mark the parade like atmosphere that accompanied Jesus during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and then through Jerusalem, leading to the temple.

 

Other traditions call today “Passion Sunday.”   They focus attention on Jesus’ march to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where the cross waits for him.  The passion is introduced in today’s scripture lesson with one simple sentence.

 

… they led him away to crucify him.

 

With those words, we are thrust into sadness, suffering, and sorrow.  With those words we come face to face with the feeling of disillusionment.

He is the One of whom the angels sang songs of hope, peace, joy, and love.

He is the One determine to deliver the world from the ravages of war by teaching us to turn swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.

He is the One who came to release the captives and set at liberty those who were oppressed.

He is the One who came to establish justice and mercy.

But now we walk down a dusty pathway in ancient Palestine and we come to “the end of road” where that One is crucified on a cross.

This is defeat and despair.

This is darkness and death.

With this we hang our head in shame and despair.

This is the disillusionment of self.

You’ve experienced this emotion, haven’t you?

You studied a subject in college, expecting to turn it into a career, but the career never materialized and you find yourself stuck in the rut of a deadend job.

You entered a romantic relationship that led you to stand before a minister, declaring your undying love for that other. But it did not work out and your dreams were transformed into a nightmare.

You attached yourself to a group of people.  With them you made a commitment to transform the world as representatives of Divine love.  But it does not seem to work out so well.

Let’s face it.  Sometimes the Church does not live up to our expectations. Robert Frost said he had a lover’s quarrel with the world. It seems to me that many of us have a lover’s quarrel with the Church.  In his book Between Dying and Birth, Robert Bachelder writes:

 

The Church seems more human than divine. It does not live up to our hopes. In the Gospel we have a healing word for a war-racked world, but then we find we have not learned even to handle conflict in our own small circle. That is disillusioning. For some it is so disillusioning that the lover’s quarrel becomes a mean-spirited thing.

 

You and I often find ourselves disenchanted by what Robert Burns calls “man’s inhumanity to man.”

My grandmother was a Jewish immigrant to the United States who came with her sisters to avoid Nazi oppression.

 

She, my aunts, and my uncles, would tell stories.

 

The Nazi’s would line up Jews and march them into gas chambers or incinerators where they would be exterminated in mass.

 

What they would do beforehand, however, was insidiously evil.  The Jews would be gathered in waiting areas where a Nazi leader would make announcements:

 

“We need doctors and nurses.  If you have any experience in the medical profession, please line up here.”

 

“We need manual laborers to work on the rail system.  Line up here.”

 

“We need people in food services.  Line up here.”

 

Pretty soon, everyone was in a line.  Next they would be taken to a room where they were told they could bathe and get a fresh set of clothing.  The Jews followed willingly, given hope by the Nazis that their specific skill set had redeemed their lives.

 

It was all a despicable ploy – a method of crowd control.  Rather than a place to be cleaned and clothed, they were marched into gas chamber or incinerators.  They were given hope as they were marched to their death.

 

How can people do that sort of thing to one another?  And when we hear those stories, how can we not help but feel disillusioned.

 

This is part of what Passion Sunday is all about.  It’s about the disillusionment we feel when we are reminded of the evil things we experience and observe in others.   It is about the disillusionment of self we feel when we see evil attitudes and behaviors in ourselves.

But there is also an opportunity for us today to experience GRACE in our Disillusionment.  I know that sounds odd.

 

Here’s what this means.  It means we see ourselves for what we really are.  We are broken people.  But it also means that in that brokenness, in those moments of disillusionment, we also see the opportunity for redemption.

 

Passion Sunday is an opportunity for us to allow disillusionment to travel full-circle and to include not just the rest of the world, but ourselves as well.

If you are like most people, you’ve probably let yourself down more than you’ve ever been let down by others.

If we are going to be honest, we have to look at the Calvary and see that it was human sin that put Jesus on that cross.  That includes your sin.  That includes my sin.   This includes the sin of the whole world.  John’s gospel declares:  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”

 

It was our sin that led him away to be crucified.

 

Today is a day to face up to that reality.  When you do, you have take the first step of faith that allows you to experience the reality of the grace that is always there in the middle of our disillusionment.

 

More than anyone else, Jesus had ample reason to be disillusioned by life.

 

He provided his disciples with lessons and examples of sacrificial service, but then found them arguing about rank and privilege.

 

His heard his disciples vow to stick with him. But one betrayed him; one denied knowing him; and the rest deserted him in fear.

 

Even from the cross, in the midst of all that anguish, Jesus experienced the very real emotion of feeling deserted.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 

That is a cry of disillusionment.

 

But Jesus did not walk away in disgust.  Jesus did not lash out in anger.  Jesus faced all the violence human sin could muster, but he stayed true to his ethic of love, inclusion, mercy, and grace.  Out of love the Bible says that Jesus endured the agony of the cross.

 

Christianity makes the bold claim that Jesus is the incarnation (the fleshing out) of God.  So, then, it is God who is thrashed and scourged.  It is God who is humiliated by the soldiers. It is God who is led to Golgotha to be crucified. It is God was sacrificed. It is God who is marched down the steps of the Via Dolorosa. It is God carries the cross. It is God who was nailed to it. It is God who was mocked by spectators and ridiculed by the religious leaders. It is God who faces the disillusionment of the cross and who LOVES US STILL.

 

God is with us when we walk through that valley.  God knows what it’s like to have hope tested, challenged, threatened and taken to the edge of total loss. We are redeemed by a crucified God who defeated death and bring victory out of disillusionment.

 

At the cross we find hope in our suffering because we know that God’s love has been poured into us from the cross.

 

In Jesus Christ, God entered into our human condition and suffered the frailty of the human behavior that betrayed him. God suffered the excruciating disillusionment of death on the cross.  And then, on the following Sunday, hope was signed, sealed and delivered as our redemption birthright – and death and human disillusionment lost its power.

 

The Good News of Passion Sunday is that God is with us even in the worst of times.  God is there because God he loves us. That is why the cross is the center of our faith.

 

It’s profoundly important for us to remember that we serve a crucified God. The older I get and the more of life I experience, the greater the importance of this reality becomes for me.

 

God is there when it hurts.

 

God is there in the midst of life’s rubble.

 

God in with us despite “man’s inhumanity to man.”

 

God is in the midst of the dust of our disillusioned lives.  God holds the surviving pieces and says:  Let’s get this life back together again… let’s resurrect it. It will never be the same as it was… but with these pieces let’s build something new that is stronger because it has been  tested by faith and hope and by love.

 

The Crucified God
by: Jurgen Moltmann
publisher: Fortress Press, published: 2015-11-01
ASIN: 150640295X
EAN: 9781506402956
sales rank: 96107
price: $17.99 (new), $21.61 (used)

From its English publication in 1973, Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God garnered much attention, and it has become one of the seminal texts of twentieth-century theology. Following up on his groundbreaking Theology of Hope, The Crucified God established the cross as the foundation for Christian hope. Moltmann’s dramatic innovation was to see the cross not as a problem of theodicy but instead as an act of ultimate solidarity between God and humanity. In this, he drew on liberation theology, and he was among the first to bring third-world theologies into a first-world context.

Moltmann proposes that suffering is not a problem to be solved but instead that suffering is an aspect of God’s very being: God is love, and love invariably involves suffering. In this view, the crucifixion of Jesus is an event that affects the entirety of the Trinity, showing that The Crucified God is more than an arresting title—it is a theological breakthrough.